I.M. Pei returns to his family’s hometown in China and designs the Suzhou Museum for a sensitive, historic site
For any architect concerned with contextual design, Suzhou presents a formidable challenge. A Chinese canal city founded 2,500 years ago, set on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River on the verge of Lake Taihu, old Suzhou (center of silk cultivation and commerce) represented the apogee of urban sophistication—a place where the enclosed garden evolved into a naturalistic universe in miniature. In 1997 and 2000, UNESCO identified nine of the remaining 69 walled gardens as World Heritage Sites.
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In 2001, the mayor of modern Suzhou, today a prosperous urban agglomeration of approximately six million people, approached the architect I.M. Pei, FAIA, to design a museum at a critical juncture: deep in the historic district at the intersection of two canals in the northeastern corner of the city, adjacent to a historic palace, and backed against an ultra-sensitive international treasure, the Garden of the Humble Administrator (1506–21). Pei, whose own family had owned the Lion Grove Garden (1342) nearby, had declined previous requests to build in his family’s hometown, but felt that the time was now right, particularly in the light of China’s building boom. Suzhou could offer a case study for contemporary design in historic environs for the new generation of Chinese planners, government officials, and designers.
Daunting limitations defined the project boundaries. First, the city required a 150,000-square-foot museum to showcase its 30,000-piece collection of Chinese art that spanned millennia. The design, according to officials, needed to reflect contemporary life, yet height limitations dictated that a structure not exceed 52.5 feet—no more than 20 feet adjacent to the existing historic buildings. Scholars at Beijing’s Tsinghua University suggested that the architect respect the prevalent Suzhou coloration, white and gray, colors that serve as a backdrop for the community’s leafy green gardens and streets.
The obvious solution to height limitations, which Pei had employed at the Pyramide du Louvre (1989), would be to depress the building’s mass into the earth. The high water table in Suzhou, a water-encircled city, compounded the difficulty of excavating very deep. Requirements demanding open space and greenery added complexity to a solution that ultimately split the difference: two stories above grade and one below, with a large quadrant on the ground plane left as garden space.
Responding to Suzhou’s heritage, the architect placed a walled garden with a void at the museum’s core. Rather than compete with the landscape iconography familiar to tourists, the garden’s emphasis lay in the simplicity of water, rocks, and sky—more akin to the Taoist philosophy of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) than to the elaborate conventions of later centuries.
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